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February 05, 2009

A Potential Defect of Abstract Painting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Not long ago I wrote about painter David Leffel and a book compiled from notes taken from his classes.

When I was in Santa Monica last week I dropped by the Hennessey & Ingalls book store, a source of great temptation. One of the temptations I succumbed to was this book by him. As with the first one, a Zen-like overtone intrudes, though thus far I'm finding it worth the $85 it cost.

One of Leffel's remarks struck me because of its obviousness and the fact that its point had never occurred to me.

In reference to an artist evolving over his career, he said (page 130):

How do abstract painters know when they are getting better ???



posted by Donald at February 5, 2009


I'm not an abstract painter myself, so perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt, but I would suggest that the abstract painter would use the same standards for improvement that a representational painter would use, once out of his schooling.

To flip the problem around, let's consider the case of Frederick (Lord) Leighton, Victorian painter. I have a book full of his paintings spanning some 40 years. There is no particular increase in his ability to say, render accurately or handle color-tone problems; that is to say, by the time he was in his early 20's his technical mastery was about as high as it ever got (and it was pretty darn high, too.)

How would old Fred have concluded that he was 'getting better'?

I think he would ask a question that any abstractionist would recognize. To wit: am I engaging more successfully with the qualities that I find important in painting? These might be composition, dynamism, color choices, line/edge quality, depth (or lack thereof), mood, etc., etc.

If you notice, these are qualities that apply equally to the full range from photorealism through stylized realism through abstraction to monochromatic canvases.

Now, the one area that might be different is finding a subject matter that truly fires the painter up. Thomas Moran clearly painted better (i.e., with greater enthusiasm for his subject) after finding his way to the Rocky Mountains.

Even here, I wonder if most abstract canvases don't have some kind of "hidden" or "submerged" subject matter, one that provokes a particular state of mind; but this is mere speculation on my part.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 5, 2009 12:08 PM

That's very easy to answer: they're getting better when they feel the need to abandon abstract "painting" for real painting.

Posted by: tcar on February 5, 2009 1:34 PM

When they can be quite sure that a painting is hung upside down?

Posted by: dearieme on February 5, 2009 6:14 PM

David Leffel, like most other realist painters, is obsessed with technique. Since most realist painting nowadays is solely technique and completely vacuous, I can see his point. I don't like modern art either. But if the only alternative is his kind of copycat realism, no thanks.

Wouldn't it be nice to see somebody who has the ability to paint well and also the depth or imagaination to do something interesting?

Do you know what the superficial realists and the modernists have in common? They don't spend much time on a painting, because they can't. The galleries and the government take 70-80% of what they make. So they paint fast. No time to think or do something of depth.

Posted by: BTM on February 5, 2009 8:32 PM


It's why I stick to sequential art for my day to day needs of freshly generated material. Now there's some freaking vitality.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on February 6, 2009 8:18 AM

Comments like "abandon abstract painting for 'real painting'" and when they can "be sure the painting is not hung upside down" speak more about the writers than the question posed. Why don't we just call abstract painters big, fat stupid heads and be done with it?

I think there are certainly good abstract painters and bad ones- and I enjoy watching the good abstract painters evolve. I also think some viewers are predisposed or, through exposure, learn to appreciate abstract art. (The term contemporary can cover anything from photorealism to abstract so should be abandoned for this argument.)

So how do we know when they are getting better? I think we need to judge by the same criteria we would judge representational art by. And we should be aware of the difference between acquiring more skills and becoming a better artist. More facts does not make a better scientist.... so until these skills are synthesized they remain just one more trick in the bag.

I happen to be a small time art dealer and wonder why such a grudge is held against us for getting a wage for it. Like any retailer I need to make my overhead. Galleries allow an artists to represented in many different markets, without doing all the work themselves. Many artists are uninterested in the business end of the art world and are happy to have galleries represent them. Galleries give artists more exposure. And like any job, the government will want their share in taxes. It is no different than any other job.

I think many viewers feel that abstract painters are pulling the wool over the eyes. They don't want to be made a fool. But I defy anyone who went to the Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian last year, to see the color field show to not be seduced by the luscious colors. The geometric ones left me cold- just not my cup of tea- but the Frankenthalers & Olitskis were breathtaking. I think if the viewer opens themselves up to respond to what is being offered they might find something in it.

PS-I also happen to like representational art. I don't feel a need to stick to one side of the aisle in my art tastes.

Posted by: SMC on February 8, 2009 3:10 PM

Welcome SMC. I have a similar history, having run a gallery that unfortunately closed when my backers failed to fulfill their promised role. I showed good regional landscape painters along side abstraction, including Olitski.

Here at 2Blowhards it can be lonely indeed arguing that aesthetics is not subject to an examination of "facts" that "prove" representational art superior. Many who comment here view abstraction as a scam perpetrated by a leftist elite intent on mocking "real people." It is difficult to argue with such a closed and vaguely paranoid view.

Posted by: Chris White on February 9, 2009 9:15 AM

I think part of the reason that there is such a pushback against abstract art on this site is that representational art is pushed so hard to the side by the established art elites, while some of the art they champion are demonstrably silly.

Witness, for example, that situation a few years back where an artist was informed that he had won a competition to have his art displayed... and showed up at the gallery to find no trace of his large sculptured head, merely the small whittled piece of wood that he'd jury-rigged to hold it in place.

It's not that abstract art has no value; it's that the people who ostensibly state that value seem to be doing darts blindfolded when lauding certain styles or artists. And while they are doing it, they are loudly looking down on realists with comments about "slavish imitation of reality" or with comparisons to photography. (I have done both art and photography and know how idiotic such comments are.)

Anyway, to get back to "how do you know if an abstract artist is getting better?" It's like anything else, it takes experience. I can usually pick the choreographer out of a bunch of dancers, and I can often pick the piece that the artist loved the best out a series. How do I do it? Heck if I know. Years of watching and doing creates a skill.

And if the artist can't tell if he's getting better, he shouldn't be doing art any more because he's getting bored with it.

Posted by: B. Durbin on February 9, 2009 11:34 PM

As someone who has been professionally involved in the arts, primarily the visual arts, for forty years, working for museums, galleries, artists, and collectors, let me say categorically that the notion that "the established art elites" have a bias toward abstraction as opposed to representational art is false. Since the end of WW II the high end, New York, international art fair crowd that makes up "the established art elite" have had a bias toward innovation for its own sake.

The previously conservative (in all senses of the word) bias toward the great art of the past resulted in many individuals and institutions failing to acquire the best art of the early part of the century while the prices of those works were still on the way up and relatively modest if compared to the highs they were reaching. Museums or collectors that had not acquired paintings by Monet or Picasso in the early part of the century found the cost of playing catch-up painful or prohibitive for example.

This led to a shift in thinking that remains in force to this day. The focus shifted from objects that had already survived the rough and tumble of the marketplace and been deemed valid (and valuable) toward those created by "emerging talents" that seemed to show some innovative attributes that might eventually lead them to be considered significant.

This phenomenon came into full force by the late Fifties, the era of Abstract Expressionism. It seems many of the realist loving bloggers around here date from that period and still feel themselves and their tastes dismissed by the art establishment and falsely blame the art that first benefited from this hunger for the NEW. Talk as I do to any abstractionists too young to have been part of the wave of interest in the Fifties and Sixties and you'll hear all the same complaints and stories of dismissive NYC gallery elitists who moved on, sequentially, to Pop, Minimalism, Earth Art, Graffiti, and various flavors of Post-Modernism. While the Blowhard line seems to be that all of the above labels are subcategories of Modernism and 'abstraction' and they don't like it, this is little more than the sticking of fingers in one's ear while loudly babbling to avoid hearing a truth they don't accept.

And furthermore, and most importantly, as Donald's efforts demonstrate, one can find a nearly infinite number of admirable artists in museums and galleries all across the country that match an aesthetic other than whatever flavor of New New York is dishing up this season.

And having spent hours in front of abstract paintings with artists discussing what was working and what was not, examining color, line, form, composition, texture, feeling, and beauty (not to mention which way is the most preferable "up") I can also say there are virtually no serious abstract painters who cannot and do not make judgments and attempt to improve as painters.

Posted by: Chris White on February 10, 2009 8:55 AM

"So how do we know when they are getting better? I think we need to judge by the same criteria we would judge representational art by."

Nah. I've already had it out with Chris White along this line. As soon as you start naming objective criteria by which to evaluate a painting, you can say that realism is superior to abstraction because it realistically depicts nature (i.e. superior drawing). Abstract art cannot be shown to be inferior to real art, otherwise the posers and pseudo-intellecturals start to look like fools. So you have to say that its what the artist intended, and not what he accomplished, that matters.

Conversely, the pseudo-intellectual snob then says that its what the viewer thinks that's important. But I thought its what the artist intended? Oops! Gotta pitch that out! But if the viewer is king, then what to say about the grand vote of the viewing public that abstract art is garbage? Well, they're just stupid. Their view is wrong, even thought the viewer is king.


Abstract art was created to completely disempower the artist and put total control of the arts into the hands of select galleries and collectors. If anybody can create an abstract "masterpiece"(of garbage), then talent doesn't matter, and talent has no bargaining power.

Chris White doesn't seem to understand that it just takes a small number of galleries and big-time collectors to game a market. Most of the rest of the people will just follow the money and ape what they see to get a piece of the pie. And that's how the game works.

P.T. Barnum was right. There really are suckers born every minute.

Posted by: BTM on February 11, 2009 3:02 PM

"Conversely, the pseudo-intellectual snob then says that its what the viewer thinks that's important. But I thought its what the artist intended?"

BTM, ask any artist and they'll tell you once the work leaves the studio, it's not theirs anymore in the sense that viewers bring whatever is in their heads to the viewing, and interpret it accordingly. An artist can intend one thing and a viewer can come away with something completely different. For me, that's the beauty of art (any art form).

But back to the artist's intention. If the intention of an artist is NOT to paint in a realistic manner, whether because he can't or he can but doesn't want to for this piece, why would you be judging the piece based on the criteria of a realistic painting? I think a confident artist would chalk this up to the previously mentioned viewer's interpretation. "You're just not into him." However, you will continue to stamp your foot and proclaim that what you ARE into (I'm guessing realism) is the SUPERIOR art form, if only because your experience of enjoying something is a zero-sum gain phenomenon. "I enjoy THIS, therefore THAT must be wrong."

Posted by: JV on February 11, 2009 5:14 PM

I couldn't care less what the artist intended. He has to carry it out and make it work. Try the intentions route with something real, like brain surgery, and see how well good intentions trump sloppy results.

I'm sorry if modern art lovers have been taken in and fooled by the moneyed elite. The intellectual claptrap is all nonsense used to manipulate markets--there's nothing there! You bought a lemon. Just deal with it. Modernism is ugly, boring, and worthless. And not only the general public, but most of the educated think so as well.

There has to be some kind of objective criteria to compare one work against another work. If there isn't, then the idiosycratic taste (really the "I get it you don't" pseudo-intellectual thing) dies with you. It can't be taught or passed on. And yes that does matter if you think culture is something to be saved and not trashed every 20 years or so.

Modern art sucks. The votes are in. The viewers decide, not the artists. The people hate it and all that is propping it up is money, not aesthetics or popularity. Without money to value it, its just scribble, and it says nothing (or nothing worthwhile).

Posted by: BTM on February 11, 2009 8:57 PM

BMT, YOU were the one who brought up the importance of the artist's intention right here:

"Conversely, the pseudo-intellectual snob then says that its what the viewer thinks that's important. But I thought its what the artist intended? Oops! Gotta pitch that out! But if the viewer is king, then what to say about the grand vote of the viewing public that abstract art is garbage? Well, they're just stupid. Their view is wrong, even thought the viewer is king."

Your false assumption that people who like modern art somehow feel superior is only a projection of your zero-sum gain, either/or worldview. You don't like modern art? OK. But don't go saying that I'm being duped because I do enjoy some of it (not all of it by any means, another assumption of yours, plenty of shite modern art and artists out there).

Posted by: JV on February 12, 2009 11:35 AM

I was being sarcastic there!

Here's my basic idea:

1) It's not what the artist intends, but what he accomplishes that matters. All artists intend to make great work, but almost all fall short. That's just life.

2) It's the viewers that get to decide if the artist has done well, not the artist.

3) There must be some sort of objective criteria to evaluate or compare one painting to another. If not, art is anti-intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual). If you can't objectively describe what it is that you like about the piece, and intelligently relay it to somebody else, then culture cannot be transferred from one person to another or from generation to generation. It is the complete breakdown of the philosophical field of aesthetics. It is anti-intellectualism to the bone.

Since modern art refuses to be judged by the same criteria as realist art, or really, by any kind of criteria at all (except good intentions, not results), it is pseudo-intellectual. It was created to induce collectors and museums to part with realist masterworks for pennies on the dollar, chasing the latest craze, and to rig the market to completely control it and the messages it sends. They's just the facts guy, and I'm just trying to tell you, that's all.

If you see the art world in this light, you'll finally start to understand the madness. If not, you get lost in the madness. I like to make sense of things.

Posted by: BTM on February 12, 2009 2:21 PM

Ah, my sarcasm detector is rusty, I guess. :)

I do have objective criteria to describe non-realist or non-representational art. Sometimes it's the subtle use of lines, or the use of color, or juxtaposition of subject matter and perspective. Hell, there are a lot of reasons I enjoy art, one of them is even accuracy of rendering (but I can't think of any painting I really like SOLELY due to that).

These are criteria that can be explained and passed down. My question to you would be, is accurate rendering of nature your only criterion to determine artistic quality? If not, than I don't think we disagree all that much aside from artistic taste. If so, then that disagreement is about as far as we can go.

Posted by: JV on February 12, 2009 6:58 PM

For a moment let's move to music and ask the same fundamental question; is there an objective way to determine aesthetic quality that pertains to all music? It seems to me ludicrous to judge the music of Bach, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, and Deathcab for Cutie using the same, unwavering, "objective" criteria to judge quality. If aesthetic quality was able to be determined by truly objective criteria wouldn't there be a iPhone mini-application capable of screening downloads to eliminate music that fails to achieve at least a 85% aesthetic quality rating? One can determine whether or not a kitchen appliance meets electrical safety concerns and whether or not one can fit a bagel in the slot and thus objectively determine that it possesses the proper qualities to be a toaster. How one can objectively determine the quality of an aesthetic object is an unsolvable conundrum because aesthetics are, virtually by definition, a subjective not objective realm.

Posted by: Chris White on February 13, 2009 8:21 AM


Why is it that if I say I like representational art, people say that accurate rendering is my only criteria? Did I ever say that about what you like?

Representational art can have everything that abstract art has, only one better--realistic rendering of nature. That's why the best realism will always be better that the best abstraction--it has everything plus one.

Chris White,

Yes you can judge music by objective criteria. That's how you can compare blues to classical. You yourself can't do it because you don't know what those criteria are, and you don't know because you don't write music. Saying that there's an emotional component in all good music is one form of criteria. I see that you believe in objective criteria here. Yet somehow, that doesn't translate to painting.

However, music is by nature abstract. The closer it gets to realism (breaking glass, shouts, etc) the less enjoyable it is. Painting isn't like that. All great painting before the 20th century (and in the 20th century, imo) was realistic. And the vast majority of viewers will tell you that they like realism in painting, and abstraction in music. Go figure.

It seems like the master of the false dichotomy (you!), has now mixed apples and oranges as well. So you again play it both ways, whenever it suits you.

Posted by: BTM on February 13, 2009 3:31 PM

BTM, I didn't assume that, I was asking that question. And you're right, realism can have, in fact, must have, other qualities besides accuracy to evoke any kind of response from a viewer. And I should add, I enjoy a lot of realistic painting. It's just that I also enjoy painting that isn't representational. That doesn't make me better or worse, in my opinion, it's just a preference. I don't think one form is better or worse than another. On a personal level, I think individual artists are better or worse than others, and I could give concrete reasons why. But for someone else, the very reasons I don't like something could be the very reasons another person DOES like something. Let's go with someone really popular like Kincade. I intensely dislike him for the exact same reasons my dad really like him.

I don't think technical difficulty is a higher criterion than, say, ability to evoke an emotion. So while it may be technically more difficult to paint a photo-realistic painting than an line drawing, that line drawing may tap into something much deeper than the photo-realistic painting. Same with music. Yngwie Malmsteen does some technically amazing stuff on guitar, but I can't listen to the dude. The Pixies, on the other hand, are serviceable musicians who happen to write and play music I'm deeply affected by.

Now, realistic paintings that are also highly emotional and all the rest? They're fantastic! But again, for me, their greatness doesn't cancel out the greatness of, say, Picasso.

Posted by: JV on February 13, 2009 5:43 PM

BTM - I do NOT believe there are objective criteria for judging music just as I do not believe there are objective criteria for judging paintings. One can compare blues to classical in various objective ways; one can explain the 12 bar format in the blues, the sonata form, etc. This in no way makes it possible to judge quality objectively ... you know, objectively as in not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.

Let's make it simpler. Rank, in terms of aesthetic quality, these paintings by Corot, DaVinci, Titian, Wyeth, Brett Bigbee. [Hopefully all my links will work.] Be sure to explain the objective criteria you use to make your decisions.

All are realist works and include the human figure. Then let's try this again.

Posted by: Chris White on February 13, 2009 6:07 PM

Let's try these links again.






Posted by: Chris White on February 13, 2009 11:18 PM

Yngwie Malmsteen indeed! Hahaha!

You have to judge paintings against one another, otherwise how can you say what's good and not good? How can you make a determination of what is worthy of museum-hood and what is worthy of the attic (or dumpster)? Of course paintings can be judged by objective criteria! Forget realism vs. abstractionism--by what standards do you say that one modern painting is better than another? How can you say one realistic painting is better than another? How can you teach this to others? How do you make the evaluation of paintings intelligible?

Chris White, I don't believe for a second that you have no standards for judging music or paintings. You lost this argument with me long ago. As soon as you offer standards to judge one modern painting with another, or one realistic painting with another, you can compare realism to modernism. And then its the realism trumping modernism because it has all that modernism does plus craftsmanship and good drawing. You know this and avoid saying you have standards because you know when you say yes, you lose.

As far as your lists of artists, its pretty easy. Bigbee sucks. His drawing is stiff and his figures lack any kind of emotion. Everybody thinks DaVinci is better than Corot. DaVinci painted no pure landscapes either.

DaVinci and Titian are both considered (rightly) as the greatest of painters.

Wyeth also is inferior to the above, because his figures lack any kind of emotion. He's considered great, like Bigbee, by those who value mere copycat drawing above all else. But drawing is an art all to itself. His dad, N.C. Wyeth, was ten times the painter Andrew Wyeth was. I don't know why people can't see that!

So you want criteria? How about--drawing, color, value, value composition, color composition, color harmony, emotion/lyricism or flow of the figures, symbolic depth, subject matter, etc.

Of course its hard to apply all those to various artists. Some just do landscapes--no figures. That's why the great figurative artists are considered better painters than pure landscape artists. I enjoy both types though. But I think that evaluation is valid.

But Bigbee really sucks! I'm shocked you can't see that! don't you have anything better than that?

If anybody wants to like modernism, fine with me. I hate it. The question I have is what is best, and what should be put in front of others as the best? If you take the time to research modernism, you'll see that it was a ruse put on the public for manipulation and control.

Why don't you research that little topic, Chris White? Afraid of the truth? Probably. Its hard to devote a lifetime to a scam that you are a victim of.

Thanks for the tussle!

Posted by: BTM on February 14, 2009 2:04 PM

You failed utterly to give any objective criteria for your responses. You offer "drawing, color, value, value composition, color composition, color harmony, emotion/lyricism or flow of the figures, symbolic depth, subject matter, etc." ... all subjective items.

If you view the five examples and apply your criteria list you're stuck saying things like you find the Bigbee "stiff" ... or you admire DaVinci's color choices ... subjective determinations all.

What objectivelymakes the Bigbee "lack emotion"? Why is Da Vinci better than Corot? Because he painted no pure landscapes? Because that is what "everybody thinks"?

Your insistence that your opinion is objective and definitive rather than subjective is both boring and boorish. Your insults are equally boring and boorish.

Posted by: Chris White on February 14, 2009 8:57 PM

BTM, I gave some concerte criteria I use when evaluating a painting, be it representational or not. The criteria you offer here -

"So you want criteria? How about--drawing, color, value, value composition, color composition, color harmony, emotion/lyricism or flow of the figures, symbolic depth, subject matter, etc."

- can easily be applied to modernist paintings. Like you say, not all of them to every painter/painting. And that's the very point. Representational painting is not "one better" because it has accuracy of rendering as a criterion. In my opinion, at least.

Anyway, you can't keep saying there are no criteria for judging modernist painting when all of the ones you offer can be and are used. And I can assure you I have not been duped into liking the modernist art I do like. I'm well aware of scams (Hirst), cynical commentary on scams offered as art (some Warhol, a lot of which I like anyway!) and/or performance-type art wherein the commentary is the point (Banksy, a lot of which I also like anyway, ha!).

Posted by: JV on February 14, 2009 9:14 PM

Chris White,

I gave several different criteria as to what makes a painting good or bad. Its the same criteria used by artists, galleries, and museums to evaluate realistic work.

The fact that you can't recognize any of these as being valid simply reinforces my point that you are a total ignoramus when it comes to art. For anybody to compare Bigbee to DaVinci means that they know absolutely nothing about drawing and painting, period.

You are, and have always been, a bullshitter of the highest order. The only reason you can exist in the world of modern art is that you are a pseudo-intellectual and irrational--just like the paintings are. You are a clown!

The greatest feeling I have though, is that I can appreciate the excellence of DaVinci, and many others, in all their subtlety, while you gaze longingly at the total crap that is Bigbee, having no clue that it is crap. Oh how nice it is to have you admit to knowing nothing! The cat is out of the bag! Bigbee, the equal of Titian or DaVinci, hahahahahahaha!

BTW, I love insulting know-nothing bullshitters like you!


Modernist paintings are judged first and foremost by the signatures, because the market is completely rigged. Good realist art is all that modernism can be plus the accurate and beautiful depiction of the natural world we live in. It will always be superior to modern art for that reason, and loved and cherished by the multitude, over/mis-educated or not.

You and generations ideed have been duped. I'm sorry for that. But you can see through the BS if you'd like. Hopefully, you will in the future. Don't be afraid to be like everybody else. It's not crass at all. You don't have to impress anybody.

Posted by: BTM on February 16, 2009 2:38 PM

BTM - You really DO have a problem with reading comprehension and standard word definitions, don't you? First point, I nowhere indicated my own ranking of the five artists I offered as examples, merely asked YOU to rank them and explain objectively your reasons.

Your answer is subjective ... you know, as in "taking place within the mind and modified by individual bias; "a subjective judgment"

I absolutely recognize the attributes you offer as being valid, simply not objective. If they were objective every gallery, collector, and museum would be supporting the same art.

A computer's processing speed is an objective fact. A computer's GUI is an aesthetic preference, a subjective determination.

One can make objective observations about a given painting ... whether it is done oil or tempera or some other medium ... what are its height and width ... is it varnished or not. None of these objective criteria can be used to determine aesthetic quality.

Use one of your criteria, say "drawing", and you are off and running making subjective comments such as "Bigbee is 'stiff'". Certainly his drawing skills, his ability to render the figure in a realistic way, are excellent. It is your emotional response to the painting that you're offering when you call it "stiff".

Again, your insistence on calling your own taste "objective" and insulting anyone who has a different aesthetic is boring and boorish.

Posted by: Chris White on February 16, 2009 6:59 PM

Wow! These comments are wonderful. I originally added to the fray because it is a question I struggle with- how do I explain to my customers who don't get abstract art why it does have merit.

The comments really focus on the intellectual arguments for and against, but ultimately it comes down to an emotional response to art. It moves you or it doesn't.

B. Durbin states "the heck if I know" on his ability to discern between good and bad abstract art. I believe he is on to something here. If you get a bunch of abstract art lovers in a room they almost always agree on what the best piece is... so there must be criteria. We just can't articulate it.

That being said. Here are my criteria for both good abstract & representational:
surface interest
stroke/handling of paint
emotional content

Thanks for posing the original question.

Posted by: SMC on February 19, 2009 6:58 AM

The discussions here wouldn't be had if more people knew more about modern art and its origins in theosophy...

It all went down at the 1913 armory show, but really, ppl, just do some research on your own and get informed. here is a link to start off:

Posted by: simon on February 23, 2009 1:24 AM

thought i would post one more link for those interested in the relationship with modern art and the occult:

Posted by: simon on February 23, 2009 1:54 AM

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